FREDRIC JAMESON, in his magisterial work, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), has offered us a particularly influential analysis of our current postmodern condition. Like Jean Baudrillard, whose concept of the simulacrum he adopts, Jameson is highly critical of our current historical situation; indeed, he paints a rather dystopic picture of the present, which he associates, in particular, with a loss of our connection to history. What we are left with is a fascination with the present. According to Jameson, postmodernity has transformed the historical past into a series of emptied-out stylizations (what Jameson terms pastiche) that can then be commodified and consumed. (See the next module on pastiche.) The result is the threatened victory of capitalist thinking over all other forms of thought.

Jameson contrasts this postmodern situation with the modernist situation that has been superceded. Whereas modernism still believed in "some residual zones of 'nature' or 'being,' of the old, the older, the archaic" and still believed that one could "do something to that nature and work at transforming that 'referent'" (ix), postmodernism has lost a sense of any distinction between the Real and Culture. For Jameson, postmodernity amounts to "an immense dilation of [culture's] sphere (the sphere of commodities), an immense and historically original acculturation of the Real" (x). Whereas "modernism was still minimally and tendentially the critique of the commodity and the effort to make it transcend itself," postmodernism "is the consumption of sheer commodification as a process" (x). That apparent victory of commodification over all spheres of life marks postmodernity's reliance on the "cultural logic of late capitalism." (See Marx: Modules: Jameson: Late Capitalism.)

Following from this economic base for thinking about postmodernity, Jameson proceeds to pinpoint a number of symptoms that he associates with the postmodern condition:

1) the weakening of historicity. Jameson sees our "historical deafness" (xi) as one of the symptoms of our age, which includes "a series of spasmodic and intermittent, but desperate, attempts at recuperation (x). Postmodern theory itself Jameson sees as a desperate attempt to make sense of the age but in a way that refuses the traditional forms of understanding (narrative, history, the reality obscured by ideology). For postmodernists, there is no outside of ideology or textuality; indeed, postmodern theory questions any claim to "truth" outside of culture; Jameson sees this situation as itself a symptom of the age, which in turn plays right into the hands of capitalism: "postmodernism is not the cultural dominant of a wholly new social order..., but only the reflex and the concomitant of yet another systemic modification of capitalism itself" (xii). Jameson calls instead for the return of history; hence, his mantra: "always historicize!" Jameson pinpoints a weakening of history "both in our relationship to public History and in the new forms of our private temporality, whose 'schizophrenic' structure (following Lacan) will determine new types of syntax or syntagmatic relationships in the more temporal arts" (Postmodernism 6). As Jameson explains, the schizophrenic suffers from a "breakdown of the signifying chain" in his/her use of language until "the schizophrenic is reduced to an experience of pure material signifiers, or, in other words, a series of pure and unrelated presents in time" (Postmodernism 27). Our loss of historicity, according to Jameson, most resembles such a schizophrenic position.

2) a breakdown of the distinction between "high" and "low" culture. As Jameson puts it, the various forms of postmodernism "have, in fact, been fascinated precisely by this whole 'degraded' landscape of schlock and kitsch, of TV series and Reader's Digest culture, of advertising and motels, of the late show and the grade-B Hollywood film, of so-called paraliterature, with its airport paperback categories of the gothic and the romance, the popular biography, the murder mystery, and the science fiction or fantasy novel: materials they no long simply 'quote,' as a Joyce or a Mahler might have done, but incorporate into their very substance" (Postmodernism 3).

3) "a new depthlessness, which finds its prolongation both in contemporary 'theory' and in a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum" (Postmodernism 6). This depthlessness is, of course, supported by point # 5. The depthlessness manifests itself through literal flatness (two dimensional screens, flat skyscrapers full of reflecting windows) and qualitative superficiality. In theory, it manifests itself through the postmodern rejection of the belief that one can ever fully move beyond the surface appearances of ideology or "false consciousness" to some deeper truth; we are left instead with "multiple surfaces" (Postmodernism 12). One result is "that our daily life, our psychic experience, our cultural languages, are today dominated by categories of space rather than by categories of time, as in the preceding period of high modernism" (Postmodernism 16).

4) "the waning of affect" (Postmodernism 10) and "a whole new type of emotional ground tone—what I will call 'intensities'—which can best be grasped by a return to older theories of the sublime" (Postmodernism 6). The general depthlessness and affectlessness of postmodern culture is countered by outrageous claims for extreme moments of intense emotion, which Jameson aligns with schizophrenia and a culture of (drug) addiction. With the loss of historicity, the present is experienced by the schizophrenic subject "with heightened intensity, bearing a mysterious charge of affect" (Postmodernism 28), which can be "described in the negative terms of anxiety and loss of reality, but which one could just as well imagine in the positive terms of euphoria, a high, an intoxicatory or hallucinogenic intensity" (Postmodernism 28-29).

5) a whole new technology (computers, digital culture, etc.), though Jameson insists on seeing such technology as "itself a figure for a whole new economic world system" (Postmodernism 6). Such technologies are more concerned with reproduction rather than with the industrial production of material goods.


Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Jameson: On Postmodernity." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Date of last update, which you can find on the home page. Purdue U. Date you accessed the site. <>.






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